NRCS EWP Funding Restores Forest Lake in Tuscaloosa County, AL
May 2, 2013
by Robert Moore, Agricultural Engineer, Central Team, Bessemer, AL
Alabama marked a milestone in April 2013…the 2nd anniversary of the April 27, 2011, historic outbreak of tornadoes that hit the eastern United States. A total of 14 states felt this wave of storms as 202 tornadoes were reported across the area. The storms claimed 316 lives nationwide and destroyed countless homes and businesses (Kazek).
Alabama was hardest hit by these storms. The state reported 62 tornadoes on April 27th with two reported EF5’s. But, the most damaging storm may have been the EF4 that struck Tuscaloosa and Jefferson Counties. This tornado had an approximate 81 mile path length and a 1.5 mile width, stretching from the City of Tuscaloosa to the Birmingham area (Oliver). In Tuscaloosa County, the storms claimed 53 lives, 20 percent of the total 253 lives claimed in Alabama that day (Grossman).
Whole neighborhoods were demolished as well as private and public businesses. Debris littered the land. Following the natural drainage patterns, much of this debris traveled to, and entered the streams, eventually entering larger bodies of water. This debris, once in the stream channels and water bodies, was capable of causing future problems during rain events. The potential problems included:
Flooding due to channel blockage
Decreased flood storage
Damage to infrastructure including roads and pipelines
Decreased wildlife and plant habitat
Through USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Emergency Watershed Protection Program (EWP), federal funding was awarded to aid sponsors to clean up and protect the area watersheds. Typically financial assistance is 25 percent for sponsors and 75 percent for NRCS. However, due to the extent and costs of the damage caused by the April 27th tornadoes in Alabama, approved EWP project financial assistance was changed to 10 percent for the sponsor and 90 percent for NRCS.
Twenty-one sponsors applied for and were granted financial assistance to help clean up the area watersheds. About $4.2 million in financial and technical assistance was made available through the EWP program to aid in this effort. Many of the projects involved cleaning out streams where debris could cause potential damage.
Tuscaloosa County sponsors applied for and received funding for 6 tornado debris removal projects. This included funding for a different kind of project – draining and removing debris from Forest Lake.
Forest Lake was the center of the Forest Lake Subdivision that was virtually destroyed by the April 27th tornado. Even though it is privately owned, the city of Tuscaloosa sponsored the EWP project to drain and remove debris from the lake because of potential public safety and health issues associated with the lake’s damage.
Federal funding for the Forest Lake project was approved in early February 2012, and work began in April 27, 2012, exactly one year after the tornadoes struck Tuscaloosa. The work was completed in July 2012.
The majority of the houses surrounding the lake were destroyed, filling the lake with furniture, personal items, appliances, and house debris. Because so much rubbish had entered the lake, there was fear that it would cause drains to be blocked which could cause flooding to surrounding areas. There was also the possibly of a dam failure which could cause extensive damage downstream.
The city was also unsure of what was in the lake. Chemicals, harmful material, and other unknown pollutants could have entered the lake during the tornado. If not removed, these items could degrade the water quality of the lake, as well as water bodies downstream of the lake.
How to proceed with the project also presented a challenge. Working in a lake bottom presented mobility problems because the equipment would get bogged down moving around in the wet silt. It was decided that an amphibious excavator (also known as a marsh buggy) would be used. A grapple would load the debris onto another barge that could easily be moved around the lake. Because this method worked better with some water in the lake, it was agreed that the lake did not have to be drained during construction. After the completion of the work, it would have to be completely drained to show that all debris had been removed.
Work continued on the project for three weeks. During this time, a fan boat was brought in to assist with maneuvering the barge in the open water. The marsh buggy worked nicely. The disturbed areas were seeded and mulched, a section of curbing and sidewalk was replaced, and the debris hauled from the site.
On May 18, 2012, three weeks after the project had begun; the project was ready for a final inspection. The project met the scope of the plans and was approved by NRCS Resource Engineers.
The spring-fed lake has since filled back up. Though the area will never look the same, the function of the lake has been restored and the water quality issues were resolved.
Grossman, Cathy and Judy Keen. “The Killer Tornados: 2 Resilient Cities 1 year later.” USA Today. April 27, 2012.
Kazek, Kelly. “Final April 27 Stats: Storm Death Won’t Change State Count.” The News-Courier, Athens, AL. 9/15/11.
Oliver, Mike. “April 27’s Record Talley: 62 Tornados in AL.” The Birmingham New, 8/4/11.
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